President Trump has denied an allegation from fired FBI Director James Comey, evidently memorialized in a contemporaneous memo, that in a private interaction this past February, Trump expressed his 'hope' that the FBI could 'let go' of an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In the process of offering testimony that was exculpatory to Trump in some important ways, Comey said last week that he interpreted this request as a directive issued by the president to a subordinate. Firing back at Comey's under-oath assertions -- again, some of which Trump embraced and touted -- the president and his legal team denied that any such a leading musing ever happened at all. They also claimed that Comey had lied about Trump's alleged 'loyalty' demand. But over the weekend, Donald Trump, Jr. appeared on Fox News and appeared to undermine his father's denial, making the case that the president had not intended his aspirational expression as an order:
"When [my father] tells you to do something, there's no ambiguity in it...'hey, I hope this happens, but you gotta do your job.' That's what he told Comey."
Here's the problem for the White House: Don Jr.'s explanation is much more persuasive and plausible than the president's flat rejection that he'd ever said what Comey reports he said. For the White House's line to fly, people would have to believe that Comey wrote up a bogus account back in February, and then perjured himself on Thursday. The public is not inclined to side with Trump on these questions. They'd also have to believe that a related Washington Post report, a major component of which was not denied by the relevant intelligence chiefs at a separate hearing last week, is false. Recall that the Post reported that Trump had sought to enlist top officials to intervene with Comey on Flynn's behalf; the DNI and NSA director each swore on Wednesday that they'd never been 'pressured' to act inappropriately or illegally, but would not answer whether Trump had asked them to step in.
Add that all up, and you have four powerful strands of evidence that the 'let it go' conversation did, in fact, take place: (1) Comey's memo, (2) Comey's testimony, (3) the circumstantial evidence of Coats and Rogers' demurrals before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and (4) the president's son conceding the point on national television in an attempt to clarify what his dad had meant by it. On the other side of the ledger, you have Trump saying, "nah, never happened." His trustworthiness ratings are dreadfully poor, so he'd likely lose a he-said-he-said squabble, even if the four items recounted above didn't exist. In issuing his denial, Trump is playing a losing hand, and his eldest son seems to understand that. Committed Trump partisans may be willing to play along with Trump's denial, but most Americans will not. That said, I'd wager that many, many more people would be willing to at least consider that the president hadn't delivered his "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go" line as a command, and that Comey's eventual dismissal wasn't punishment for declining to fulfill Trump's hope on this front.
In fact, I'd reckon that applying Don, Jr.'s explanation for step one, then applying my theory for step two, is a far more credible case against obstruction than the president's dubious refutation. After all, news reports have also cited sources who said the president appealed to Coats and Rogers to help him push back against what he saw as exaggerated and unfair hype about the Russia probe, likely by highlighting the important nugget that Trump wasn't a target of an FBI investigation. They wouldn't go through with it, but Comey's own testimony now makes Trump's consuming frustration on this point much more understandable. Comey had told him three times that he wasn't a target, yet nobody with national security or law enforcement gravitas was willing to say so for public consumption, even as unflattering details were leaking into the press left and right. Trump could easily have fired Comey in a fit of outrage over that, while at the same time anticipating that the director's handling of the Hillary email debacle had earned him more than enough permanent enemies on Capitol Hill that dumping him wouldn't create a clamor.
But once again, the Trump administration's struggles have been compounded by unconvincing and shifting stories. How will they spin Don Jr.'s comments? If they forcefully dismiss them and double down on the denial, are they closing off one of their strongest defenses against obstruction charges? I'll leave you with a few rays of hope for the White House. First, here's Sen. Mike Lee -- a major Trump critic during the campaign and a constitutional attorney -- agreeing with liberal law professors Jonathan Turley and Alan Dershowitz that thus far, the case for obstruction is extremely flimsy to nonexistent:
If Trump isn't losing the Lees of the world, he's in no real peril vis-a-vis impeachment (although if Democrats retake the House next fall, that could change things, big league). Second, for all of their hysteria, innuendo, and overreach, the Left hasn't convinced anyone beyond the hardcore anti-Trump resistance that he's done something illegal. Last week's Quinnipiac poll was a disastrous for Trump (this pollster has been especially negative for him), but even their numbers found that less than a third of the public think the president has conducted himself in an unlawful manner:
If you tally up the 'illegal' and 'unethical' columns, you're looking at a strong majority of voters, so this isn't exactly great news by any stretch. But many people voted for Trump despite being well aware of the fact that his ethics have been...checkered for quite some time. Criminality would be the game-changer, and that threshold clearly has not been met. By the way, for all the talk about Comey's memos, which we're supposed to take as fully accurate and decisive, we still haven't seen them. Even the journalists who wrote about them haven't actually laid eyes on them. The relevant committees on Capitol Hill don't possess them. That seems really weird. And it's probably about to change:
Depending on who's telling the truth (this seems like a strange potential untruth by Comey), somebody must be hoping those fabled audio recordings don't really exist.